Young Alumni Spotlight — Chris Witman, Architectural Studies ‘13

Tell me about yourself. Describe your professional background.

In January I moved to Richmond, Virginia to start my first job out of school.  Originally from south central PA, I graduated from PhilaU in 2013 majoring in Architectural Studies.  During my time in Philly I spent a summer interning with the Independence Seaport Museum.  Soon after graduation I moved to Vermont to start grad school at The University of Vermont.  In December I was fortunate to graduate from there with a Masters in Historic Preservation.  My time at PhilaU showed me that this was the direction that I wanted to follow.  After learning more about this broad field, I decided that I wanted to focus on the technical side of preservation.  My interest is in how to maintain, restore, and conserve historic building materials.  This focus led to an internship with the New York Citywide Monuments Conservation Program while I was still in grad school.  I currently am an apprentice at Centennial Preservation Group out of Ohio.  The company deals with the restoration, and preservation of various building materials.

Why did you choose Philadelphia University for your college education?

I chose Philadelphia University because of their architecture program.  The campus was also much more appealing than the other choices I had.

Why and how did you choose your career path?

My interest and career in the field of historic preservation started when I didn’t get into the five year architecture program.  I was accepted into the architectural studies program and soon realized that architecture wasn’t the path I wanted to go into.  The concentration in historic preservation was a gamble that managed to pay off.  The classes at PhilaU influenced me to then get my Masters in the subject.

For you, what was the most valuable part of your PhilaU education?  Did your PhilaU education influence your career path?

My education at PhilaU definitely influenced my career path.  The most valuable part of the education would be the help and support given by not only the teachers but also the advisors.  The classes for a Masters in Historic Preservation is on a much higher level than the classes that we went through at PhilaU.  That said, the education during undergrad made the transition less stressful.

Tell me about any special recognition that you have received and any organizations or networks that you are involved with.

I’m a member of The Association for Preservation Technology International and participate in one of the committees that are open to all members.

Tell me about any challenges you’ve faced in your career and how you overcame them.

The field of historic preservation is extremely broad where graduates can pick many directions to follow.  My interest is in learning the hands-on technical side of building material restoration and conservation.  This is a topic that I feel complements my education but wasn’t really taught on an academic level.  This might not be the case in other grad programs but at UVM we primarily read and discussed treatment options.  My main challenge was finding a way to get hands on field experience.  This is why I chose to start as an apprentice with the company I work for now.  I believe the knowledge I’m getting will be beneficial in the future, and along with my degree, create a well-rounded understanding of this topic.

Tell me about the most rewarding/interesting part of your career.

The most rewarding aspect of my career path would be the buildings and works of art that I get to see and work on.  Last summer I conducted an internship in New York City where I was given the chance to help clean and maintain monuments around the city.  Monuments sculpted by individuals like Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were just some of the work that three other interns and I worked on.  Even though the work was somewhat basic, it was still a pleasure to be able to touch these pieces and help maintain them for the future. 

The company I’m working for right now is restoring and adapting steel windows from a 1930s Art Deco tall building in the heart of Richmond which was formerly a bank.  The windows are an important character defining feature to the building, if replaced the building would lose some of its integrity.  The building is also going to include apartments and retail that will help to revitalize downtown Richmond.  The company is also doing extensive work on The University of Virginia’s Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson.

What are the guiding principles that you feel have helped you succeed in your career?

I wouldn’t say I have succeeded in my career just yet.  That said, my fundamental guiding principle that I believe helps me is the idea that I’m never done learning.  That’s why I took the job I did after graduating from grad school.  It’s a topic I want to know so I’m going to learn it.

Tell me a little about your life outside of work.  How do you balance work and life?

Most of my time is spent visiting historic sites around Richmond and Virginia.  I’m sure anyone who took Architectural History can relate when I say I need to see the buildings that were on the slide shows.  So there is a lot of traveling to see significant examples of historic and modern architecture.  My work is my passion; it’s hard to separate sometimes but I’m working on it.

If you could pass along a lesson to current PhilaU students and recent grads, what would it be?

I thought I wanted to be an architect and was going to apply for the program after my second year.  I chose not to when I learned about the concentration in historic preservation.  I would simply say keep an open mind and assess all your options.